Iraq Election Results a Setback for U.S. Aims

Tyler Marshall and Borzou Daragahi assess the preliminary results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections

The apparent failure of secular, Western-oriented political groups to win many seats in Iraq’s four-year legislature puts new pressure on the Bush administration in its efforts to stabilize the country. In Iraq, U.S. officials will have to intensify their efforts to contain ethnic and sectarian divisions that have deepened over the last year and, if allowed to fester, could push the country toward civil war. And as initial results indicate that the Iraqi government will be led by Shiite Muslims with ties to Iran, U.S. officials also may face pressure to establish their own direct working relationship with Tehran. Both tasks could prove crucial if the administration is to achieve its oft-stated goal of creating a stable, unified, democratic and peaceful country.

On Tuesday, as election officials in Baghdad released data suggesting that Shiite-led parties had won big, there were signs the Bush administration was already working to damp enmity over the results. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at a news conference in the capital that he had conducted “preliminary discussions” with Iraqi leaders, urging them to reach across the sectarian and ethnic lines dividing Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The Bush administration had vocally supported electoral alliances that crossed such lines, including the one led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite. But all such groups did poorly. Allawi’s Iraqi National List appears to have won only 21 seats, claiming 8% of the popular vote tallied so far, whereas the religious Shiite-based United Iraqi Alliance has apparently garnered 110 seats with an estimated 44% of the vote. Allawi and other groups are expected to pick up more seats in the 275-member parliament once expatriate votes are tallied. A secular alliance headed by controversial Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a onetime Pentagon favorite to lead Iraq, scored less than 0.5% of the vote — not enough to win a seat. “It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic and sectarian identities,” Khalilzad said. “But for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic cooperation.”

The strong draw of Iraq’s religious and ethnic-based parties, coupled with the poor showing of broader alliances, underscores a potential danger in the Bush administration’s stated plan to expand democracy across the Middle East: Elections can act to sharpen social divisions rather than heal them and to increase political instability rather than temper it.

Those with experience in elections in conflict zones said they were not surprised by the initial results in Iraq. “Voters are not looking for creative, forward-looking candidates, they are looking for people who they think can protect them,” said James Dobbins, a foreign affairs specialist at the Rand Corp.’s Washington officewho has served in diplomatic posts, including in the Balkans, under several presidents. “They fall back on the familiar and the powerful. The same thing happened in postwar Bosnia, where the parties that fed the conflict in the first place got most of the vote.”

Juan Cole rounds up election data from several sources.

AP says that Husain Shahristani of the UIA (someone very close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) is predicting that the Shiite religious coalition will end up with 130 seats, ten less than its current total. Moreover, a group of Sadrists, the Messengers, ran separately from the UIA in the south and are getting 3% of the seats. If that holds, they will have about 7 or 8 seats, and they will certainly ally with the United Iraqi Alliance, which is therefore in striking distance of forming a government.

This is certainly not a result we would have hoped for. Not only might such a government be more likely to ally with Iran, it is more likely to hew towards Islamic law and less likely to be able to mollify the Sunnis than a more secular government.

Dobbins is right that this outcome would have been easily predictable in a vacuum–elections are often a census in emerging democracies–but there were several seemingly legitimate polls in recent months that were indicating support for secularism. I discounted those polls somewhat at the time, cautioning that survey results in societies with little history of free expression are suspect, but didn’t expect them to be 180 degrees out.

Cole, on the other hand,

. . . pretty much nailed this election last October in this post (scroll down a bit). Note that I was often contradicted by observers on the ground in Iraq, who kept saying they perceived a groundswell for the secular party of Allawi, even in the Shiite-dominated provinces. This allegation never made any sense to me. Michael Rubin of the AEI was predicting 5 percent for Chalabi (the neocon favorite) and 20 percent for Allawi, a prediction that demonstrates that after 2 1/2 years the neocons still just can’t understand anything about contemporary Iraq.

He ended that post with a dire prediction:

You could also imagine an alliance of the Shiite fundamentalists with the Iraqi Islamic Party on issues such as Islamic law. If that development occurred, I suspect it would hasten Kurdish secession, since the Arabs could consistently outvote the more secular-leaning Kurdish bloc if they united.

That strikes me as a plausible possibility if the coalition that appears most likely to emerge comes together. My hope is that they are responsible adults and understand the chaos that could come from such a path and therefore temper their policies.

I’ve noted in several previous posts my displeasure with the proportional election scheme adopted in the Iraqi constitution. It has the allure of seeming much more “fair” than our first-past-the-post/single member district model and, on the surface, is more representative. Unfortunately, it provides every incentive for more radical parties to run and for people to vote for them. SMD would still have led to a Shiite dominated government–they are, after all, a sizable majority of the Iraqi population–but might well have led to a more inclusive, secular one.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jon Henke says:

    It’s getting more and more interesting and complicated in Iraq. Stratfor recently published a fascinating analysis of the geopolitical issues at play, which I blogged here.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Some have predicted an Islamic Republic closely allied with Iran since the beginning.

    My hope is that they are responsible adults and understand the chaos that could come from such a path and therefore temper their policies.

    Now THAT is wishful thinking.

  3. Rick DeMent says:

    This is certainly not a result we would have hoped for.

    But it was one that was completely predicable and was predicted but those who supported the invasion chose to ignore it and as a result we are stuck with a country that may well devolve into a theocratic democracy for lack of a better term. And one that ahs closer ties to Iran then the West.

    Good work!

  4. LJD says:

    Since when did establishing a democracy mean setting up a government WE want? Ironically, that “puppet government” argument is exactly the one the anti-war nuts are using.
    We give the Iraqis a vote and a choice. Mission accomplished. The future is up to them. That’s how a democracy works, and is a far cry from life under Saddam. So what’s the problem?
    Or does every U.S. action now require a promise of eternal peace for the host country? Let’s look back at history and see how that one has wokred out…

  5. Fersboo says:

    I see, since the outcome is not perfection, then the entire enterprise is a waste of time, effort & resources.

    Imagine, if you will, a world in which no one attempts to do anything for fear that whatever they accomplish will be worth nothing because their accomplishment failed to reach perfection.

  6. ken says:

    My hope is that they are responsible adults and understand the chaos that could come from such a path and therefore temper their policies.

    Hope is not a plan.

    And why would you hold the Iraqis to a higher standard than you hold the Bushies? If they had acted like responsible adults in the first place they never would have gotten us into this mess.

  7. John Burgess says:

    Election results aren’t the end of the matter. Behavior of those elected is.

  8. RA says:

    Talk about secular bias. All things religious are bad and all things secular are good. At least they won’t be run by ACLU types. That would be much worse.

    I have always contended a partitioned Iraq is not a bad thing. Three seperate states where two will be friendly to us and the other will wither on the vine.

    It has only been in the last 50 years that secularism has gained prominence. Actually it has divided America and is failing in Europe. It was also the basis for the Third Reich and the communist states. Secularism is the answer to nothing.

  9. Rodney Dill says:

    Guess the other three tankers from Iran with illegal ballots make it through.

  10. Anderson says:

    This reminds me of Louis Menand’s article about experts in the New Yorker.

    Whether Menand mentioned it or not, experts have a bad tendency to ignore the obvious, in favor of ascribing great importance to factors known only to experts.

    Trouble is, sometimes those factors are so unknown because they’re insignificant. I think the Iraq elections are a good example.

    What we needed, putting my Kissinger cap on, was an authoritarian regime that would gradually introduce the rule of law, basic civil rights, etc. My axiom is that those come first and a democracy comes second.

    Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time & again, Bush’s people have no clue how “democracy” is supposed to work in America, much less overseas.

  11. Jonk says:

    No big surprise in the election results…heck, even Saddam is waving around a Koran now and praying.


    We gave them the vote, *how* they vote is up to them.

  12. Bithead says:

    Burgess hits this one out of the park; THe real deal is what they do once in office.

    And as to that, I have no real worries at this point; THere’s too much history between Iran and Iraq to see them getting overly chummy.

    Further, I have said often enough that seeking to change the culture by means of government is fuitless at best and counter productive, at worst. THe left in this country has been trying to use government to alter the culture for years, and look at the disaster that’s turned into.

    Seems to me that similarly, expecting the Iraqi people to go fully secular is perhaps unrealistic as well, and ignores the cultural background. In a choice between gvernment or culture, most will chose the culture every time. Witness the collapse of the USSR; the old culture psung up againt, once the governmentally enforced culture went away.

    So, what does this mean for Iraq now?
    A long, slow, culturally driven change. We’ve made far too many freinds in Iraq for them to to be a threat to us, (Barring some islamic coup. But at the same time to expect them to abandon the islamic background outright in one go is unrealistic.

    Cultural change does not happen overnight.